Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Todd Haynes postmodern tearjerker

Todd Haynes is reeling from a weekend at the mercy of 60 junketeering journalists with but one question on their minds: Why melodrama now? On the face of things, it's not a dumb question. Far From Heaven, which stars Julianne Moore as an upper-middle-class housewife who falls in love with her gardener, is a re-imagining of Douglas Sirk's 1955 film All That Heaven Allows, with tributary nods to Sirk's 1959 race drama Imitation of Life and Max Ophüls' 1949 The Reckless Moment (which was remade last year as The Deep End). Haynes' movie, a sumptuously autumnal tale of grand passion brewed in a suffocating climate of repression and desire, is also an unabashedly loving, slyly subversive homage to the maternal melodramas of that era. But from a marketing standpoint, a women's weepie without Julia Roberts in the lead—one about a self-sacrificing homemaker, to boot—doesn't bode for sexy box office in the here and now. Yet Far From Heaven is Haynes' most accessible movie to date. It looks like a classic Hollywood movie; it was made for $12 million, a princely budget for a director who cast his first film (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) with Barbie dolls; and it's executive-produced by three heavy hitters (Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney and John Wells).

Nonetheless, the film is less a departure for Haynes than an integral part of his ongoing, intensely politicized project, which is to seize on a cultural moment and read it back to us on its own terms, but with a stylistic edge that nudges us to learn from the past. Far From Heaven is set in the 1950s, a decade we've learned to remember at best with knowing amusement, at worst with outright contempt for its guileless complacency. But that isn't Haynes' game at all. Dizzy with Sirkian passion, Far From Heaven stars Julianne Moore (who also played the environmentally challenged homemaker in Haynes' movie Safe and, on the strength of this new movie, looks set to be his muse) as Cathy Whitaker, a pillar of Hartford, Connecticut, whose comfortable life is shattered when she happens upon her sales-executive husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), in the arms of a male hustler. Struggling to hold together a marriage held by all of Hartford society to be a match made in heaven ("Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech!" the local society-page headlines gush), Cathy, in turn, grows more and more attracted to their gardener, a man whose serene self-possession stands in painful contrast to her own churning agitation.

Though set in the '50s, Far From Heaven is intended for an audience schooled in the deconstruction of that coercively monolithic decade. Thus Frank, wonderfully played by the hypermasculine Quaid, is a closeted homosexual, drunk on alcohol and his own bile, while the gardener, Raymond, who's played by Dennis Haysbert with a faintly amused impassivity worthy of Morgan Freeman, is a "Negro." The opprobrium Cathy and Raymond suffer merely as a result of being seen together in public rains down from both the black and white communities—only Cathy's maid, Sybil (Viola Davis), who straddles both worlds, has an unclouded view of the relationship and of what's to come. If that makes Far From Heaven a movie for our times, when divisions of race and sexual identity are openly debated (though, Haynes implies, scarcely more resolved), it's also a pointed commentary on what lay hidden beneath the surface of the breezy consensus that threatened to smother the '50s, in life and in the movies.

* * *

Far From Heaven, says Todd Haynes, grew out of a period of crisis in his own life. He had lived in New York for 15 years, and the last two were not happy. There were "disappointments and shit." He doesn't specify whether this was personal or professional, except to say that making Safe while caring for a sick boyfriend was hard and that Velvet Goldmine, which got mixed notices from critics and did poorly in theaters, was even harder. "Also, in general, I'm just not totally built to be a director," says Haynes, "in the kind of total arrogance of it. I can get into the details, but the way you have to exert that control and assume that everybody's time and energy should be beholden to your needs . . ." There's vulnerability in Haynes' china-blue eyes, and a kind of delicate dreaminess—you can imagine this openly gay man identifying more with his beleaguered heroine than with her husband, who finally dumps her for a young Adonis in a Miami hotel. In the plush Old World elegance of the Chateau Marmont lounge, dotted with Armani-clad deal-makers, the slightly built Haynes, dressed in jeans and a checked shirt open over a T-shirt, looks like the relaxed Pacific Northwesterner he has recently become.

Disillusioned by life in New York, which he felt had grown too cleaned-up and professional, and with his mood unelevated by reading "all of Proust" during his year off, the director got into his car in early 2000 and drove almost without stopping to Portland, Oregon, where his sister had found him a lovely Victorian house to occupy for a few months. "It was this strangely dry winter and spring in Portland—it just rained flower petals for four months. It was very Sirkian, very lush," he says. Almost immediately, Haynes hooked up with locals artists and went out clubbing in the Portland underground music scene—something he'd never done in New York. Meanwhile, he wrote the script for Far From Heaven in 10 days. "In a weird way," he says, "it was a commencement piece to my sadness, so it resulted more from something I was looking back at than from the new feeling of birth and revitalization I felt in Portland. But the script poured out of me. Which of course made me completely mistrust it. I thought, 'This must be crap.'"

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